Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2013
Most educated people share the belief that history teaches us lessons - that the historical past leads to the present and somehow extends into the future. The persistence of this belief is such that historians, as a professional group, benefit from sustained employment and positions of rank in many high cultures. The historian’s desire to elucidate the present, or even to unearth behavioral models for the future, results in a constant evolution of the questions that historians pose on the past. In our century, the historian’s desire for contemporary relevance has played a role in the growth of social history. More recently, it has contributed to the popularity of research projects on the environment and on gender roles. In using the past to explain the present, however, academic historians rarely achieve consensus in their conclusions, and they generally prognosticate future developments with no greater degree of success than the average person.
Of course, no one would contest that our present relates in a real sense to our past. However, the historian who researches the history of historiography or the development of an historical consciousness in a past society is soon forced to recognize a countervailing fact. In any period contemporary needs and yearnings determine why and how we explore the historical record. In reconstructing the past from the present we discover that the boundaries separating historical research from pure construction are not easily defined.